November 23rd, 2015
My two furry babies. Number Nine (RIP) and Apollo.
When we first got a family dog 14 years ago, I was deep in the throes of mothering many small children, so bonding with our new pet was not high on my list of priorities. Dan handled most of the puppy training, and kids were in charge of cleaning up after him, letting him out, and feeding him. I had nothing against dogs, but I had very little time or energy to spare for nurturing non-human creatures in those days, so that’s just the way it needed to be.
One night while our puppy was still small, though, we had a loud thunderstorm. Because I had not sought out much of a relationship with the dog, I was surprised to discover I was the one he came to, trembling with fear at the sound of thunder and lightning. He scratched at our bedroom door, and insistently and repeatedly came to MY side of the bed, whining and pawing for MY attention in his moment of need.
The scared little dog needed a mom, and he knew where to find one. ME. I was the mom, and he knew it.
I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences of finding yourself playing a motherly role in unexpected ways and places. It’s an awesome privilege and responsibility to be “the mom” wherever we go, isn’t it? I was reminded of this fact recently when I read these words from Edith Stein (aka St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross):
Finally, woman’s intrinsic value can work in every place and thereby institute grace, completely independent of the profession which she practices and whether it concurs with her singularity or not. Everywhere she meets with a human being, she will find opportunity to sustain, to counsel, to help.
If the factory worker or the office employee would only pay attention to the spirits of the person who work with her in the same room, she would prevail upon trouble-laden hearts to be opened to her through a friendly word, a sympathetic questions; she will find out where the shoe is pinching and will be able to provide relief.
Everywhere the need exists for maternal sympathy and help, and thus we are able to recapitulate in the one word motherliness that which we have developed as the characteristic value of woman. Only, the motherliness must be that which does not remain within the narrow circle of blood relations or of personal friends; but in accordance with the model of the Mother of Mercy, it must have its root in universal divine love for all who are there, belabored and burdened.
We are the moms. Wherever we go, the world knows us and needs us. Where will you bless others with your “momness” today?
November 19th, 2015
Dan and I spent our first Thanksgiving as a married couple at his mother’s bedside in the hospital. She had suffered a stroke and was on her third day in the intensive care unit, incoherent and unresponsive to medication. One of my husband’s aunts arrived and suggested that the two of us should take a break from sitting vigil and head down to the cafeteria for lunch.
And so we did. We sat alone at a chilly metal table and did our best to ingest a hospital cafeteria’s attempt at Thanksgiving dinner, complete with compartmentalized plastic trays and disposable silverware. I poked at a scoop of cold instant mashed potatoes and struggled to stifle a selfish anger that threatened to rise within me.
This was not at all the way this day was supposed to be. It was 1994, I was pregnant with our first baby and had entertained grand ideas about establishing holiday traditions for our young family. Our first Thanksgiving dinner was supposed to be an idyllic feast of family and food. My mother-in-law and I were supposed to be getting on each other’s nerves and stepping on each other’s toes in the kitchen while the men watched football in the other room.
I was a young woman in a young marriage. My mother-in-law’s sudden illness was my first real taste of the reality that things might not always go as I had planned them — that God might indeed allow for suffering and loss in my family life. That afternoon, I watched my mother-in-law labor to breathe through an intubation tube and I struggled to pray, but no words came.
Later, I stood awkwardly at my husband’s side as he hung a brown scapular around his mother’s neck, and still I found no words. I was too angry and confused to talk to God just yet. That Thanksgiving evening, Dan and I returned home to our one-bedroom apartment. When he suggested we pray a Rosary for his mother before going to bed, I flinched. Pregnancy plus the long day had left my body with previously unknown levels of exhaustion. But what kind of wife and daughter-in-law flinches at such a request? I said yes.
Dan handed me my rosary and there, in our tiny living room, sitting on second-hand sofa cushions, we prayed. I thought of my mother-in-law lying in her hospital bed as we prayed. I remembered the smell of hospital disinfectant and the steady beep and hum of life-saving equipment. But there, in the sound of my husband’s voice repeating the familiar words of prayer, I found peace for the first time in days.
The most important Thanksgiving tradition is simply pausing long enough to recognize our blessings. At that first Thanksgiving of our young marriage, I counted among my blessings the security of our marriage and my husband’s leadership. Dan’s steadfast faith in the face of challenges bolstered my own. He gave voice to my prayer when I felt I had none.
I never finished praying the rosary that night. After a couple of decades, my responses slowed and my eyelids grew heavy. When I could no longer fight it, I finally fell asleep. Dan didn’t wake me. He finished praying for both of us.
Just like I knew he would.
November 17th, 2015
I like to experiment in the kitchen, but when it comes to Thanksgiving, my secular favorite holiday, I’m all about tradition, and I’ve trained my family to agree with me.
Don’t mess with the traditional recipes!
In case you are looking for some traditional inspiration yourself this year, here are some of the recipes I use:
Cranberry Orange Bread
Basic Pie Dough
Best Ever Pumpkin Pie
Kentucky Derby Pie
November 15th, 2015
In late November, the air is ripe with motherly anxiety as many of us brace ourselves to “do” Christmas one more time. We ready ourselves for more shopping, more decorating, more entertaining, and more baking. And year after year, despite our best-laid plans and intentions, many of us wind up feeling controlled by materialism, pressured by expectations, and overwhelmed by obligations. As Advent begins, we prepare – not so much for the coming Christ – but for completely depleting ourselves in the name of His coming.
This is no way to prepare for a baby.
Christmas is an undeserved blessing, the joyful celebration of God’s great love – the Word made flesh. It’s ours to anticipate; it isn’t ours to “do.”
This year, I have a different plan for Advent. I plan to prepare for Christmas in some of the ways I have prepared for my own babies in the past. We are waiting for a baby, after all. And, even if you are not a mother, I encourage you to do the same. Here’s how:
We mothers know how to clean for a baby, and when the hormones of late pregnancy kick in, there’s no stopping us. We know how to scrub out the refrigerator, alphabetize the spice rack, sanitize the light switches, and bleach seven loads of laundry in a single day. We do these things because nature tells us to.
We don’t need to bleach or boil in preparation for Christmas, but we can clear clutter from our homes. We can free ourselves from “stuff” by purging our overflowing closets, garages, and toy boxes in order to throw useless things away and donate good items to charity.
And we can come clean. We can let go of stubborn grudges and lingering resentments. We can free ourselves of selfish pride that fills us with anger and entitlement. We can stop nursing our own tiny wounds and focus instead on the ways that we have hurt others, failed ourselves, and offended God.
We can go to confession. We can examine our consciences, enter into the presence of Christ in the confessional, and acknowledge our own selfishness, omissions, and offenses. We can open our hearts to receive the graces God pours into them through the sacrament. We can humble ourselves in preparation to receive the gift of Christ and to recognize the inestimable debt of gratitude we owe this tiny baby – our Lord and our Savior.
When I was pregnant for the first time and shopping for a crib, an elderly lady I knew scolded me: “You don’t need a crib! My babies all slept with nothing but a blanket in a dresser drawer!”
I never have tried the dresser drawer thing, but I have come to know that, while it’s nice to have some baby things, new parents don’t truly need to collect all the gear that baby magazines are pushing these days.
And neither do we need many of the things we buy and do in preparation for Christmas. While it is appropriate to buy gifts as a means of expressing affection and recognizing this holy season, we can carefully choose how we spend our time and money.
Will that mountable reindeer head that tells raunchy jokes and makes bodily noises contribute to your family’s celebration? Do you need to impress the neighbors by turning your yard into an animated, glittering display of lights and splendor that rivals Disneyland? Are you shopping your family into debt? Are you tempted to buy junk and useless gizmos for people on your list, just so that you can cross off their names?
In preparation for Christmas, we can choose what things to buy and what things to do thoughtfully. With some thought and discernment, we can be sure that our extra efforts are meaningful. We can ensure that they draw us toward, and not away from, Christ.
As excited as we get about a new baby’s birth, every mother must admit that there is something special about the waiting. Anticipating a good thing can be a good thing in itself. There is a certain quiet joy in feeling a growing baby’s twists and kicks within us as we imagine what wonders God has in store.
Advent, too, has a certain quiet joy. When we wrap secret presents, open doors on a calendar, light candles on a wreath, and bake goodies that we store away for future celebrations, we anticipate good things. We are waiting for Christ. And God invites us to savor the waiting.
He invites us to savor the glowing lights of the Christmas tree as they flicker in our children’s eyes. He invites us to turn off the television and take a walk in the winter air. He invites us to savor the silence of a cold dark night as we watch and wait for His coming light. He invites us to remember what we have been told and to anticipate the greatness of the One to come:
For a child is born to us, a son is given us; Upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:5).
Come, Lord Jesus, come!
November 12th, 2015
I grew up with a dad who prays the Liturgy of the Hours, and as a result, the Church’s daily pockets of prayer have always held a special attraction for me. Perhaps when I am an older woman, I will live the kind of life conducive to praying the Divine Office, but for now, my own version will have to do.
Alone on the couch with a prayer book, I prepare for the day that lies ahead. My husband is in the shower, coffee is in my cup, and my children are still in their beds.
But not for long.
“Mama,” Gabby calls from the stairway. “Where are you?”
And so she finds me. And entertains me. With stories of her dreams – of princesses and butterflies. With demonstrations of a dance move she is perfecting – toes pointed and arms moving gracefully through the air. With questions about up-do hairstyles, painted nails, pierced ears, and the magic age she must reach before acquiring these worldly delights.
As I listen, I pray:
Give me your ears, Lord. Help me to hear in this small voice not an interruption, not something that pulls me away from you – but the very purpose for which you put me here on earth. Help me to hear a garrulous girl who is growing up, who needs my guidance, who craves my attention, and who – at least for now – values my opinion above all others. Give me ears to hear the gift that comes in her small, curious, animated, and admiring voice.
Finally weary of children telling me they are at risk for malnutrition, I pull boxes of pasta from the pantry and make my way to the kitchen to prepare lunch. A pile of school papers tall enough to make the fire marshal twitch awaits me at the counter. Greasy gunk and saucy splashes from last night’s chicken dinner greet me at the stove. I straighten the stack of papers, grab a nearby dishtowel, and wipe half-heartedly at the stove top while waiting for the water to boil.
As I wipe, I pray:
Give me your eyes, Lord. I want to see the blessing of “enough to eat” in my kitchen’s messes. Help me see the privilege of having my children at home in the piles of papers and chaos of the dining room. Show me that messes are temporary things, but the souls we are raising are forever. Help me to know that my own preferences for greater tidiness and order will be met in due time. Right now, I want to see only love.
With two of my smallest children along for the ride, I drop off one child at basketball practice, drive to the next town to drop off a second, stop at the grocery store for just a few items that somehow turn into an overflowing cart that costs $130, and then head back to the gyms to begin the picking up part of my day.
It is already dark by the time we pull into the driveway, and my head is filled with laundry to finish, phone calls to make, e-mails to write, deadlines to meet, and dinner to prepare.
But three-year-old Danny has fallen asleep. Gently, I unbuckle his seat belt, lift him from his car seat, and we make our way through the dark toward the house. The cold air wakes him, though, and he squirms, cries, and kicks.
As I hold him, I pray:
Give me your arms, Lord. I need gentle strength. Help me respond to anger with a gentle touch that soothes. I want to touch all my children in the way they need it most. Give me capable arms to hold them when they need to be held but wise ones, too, that know when to let them go. In my every touch, may others feel your love.
After dinner, cowboys take over the house. There is gunfire in the living room and a cattle roundup in the hallway.
“Settle down!” I hear myself say. “Time for pajamas!”
But cowboys don’t always listen to their mothers. And big boys sometimes grow deaf, too. Like when they are so close to beating their high score and mom says it’s time to turn that noisy thing off.
As I scold, I pray:
Give me your voice, Lord. Help me to see that the words I choose can build up or tear down. When I grow tired of repeating myself and want to give up or shout, inspire me with a better way to gain my children’s attention. Give me grace to correct fairly and inspire virtue. Help me to say out loud the things that are good and true about my children. I want to encourage them.
“Mama,” someone small speaks to me in the dark. “I need a dwink.”
I will myself from the warmth of my bed and force myself to walk through the door and down the stairs to fill a sippy cup. I return, present the gift of hydration, and lead the thirsty one back to his bed.
“Stay here,” he begs, and so for just a moment I settle down next to him.
As he sleeps, I pray:
Give me your heart, Lord. In the sleeping, breathing bodies that fill the beds of this room and the next, help me to see the preciousness of the souls you have entrusted to me. I want my heart to overflow with grace and love, joy and gratitude. Help me to know that my life in this home and my days with these children are a temporary privilege.
Teach me to see you, to feel you, and to know you in the peace and stillness of this night. Touch my heart and show me where you lie patiently waiting for me – beneath the noise and chaos, in every moment of every day.
(This is an old column of mine that originally appeared at Inside Catholic.)
November 9th, 2015
The day my mother joined Facebook, I updated my status to read: “That loud crashing sound you just heard? That was worlds … colliding.”
Imagine the noise, then, when my oldest daughter created her page and her younger siblings followed soon after. We needed to set some rules. It’s not just teenagers who need Facebook rules, though. We all do. Here are some of mine for grown-ups.
1. Less is more.
This is tricky, because I love to know other people’s details. I think it’s encouraging (and a little bit hilarious) when a friend confides to Facebook that she was mortified to hear her toddler shout out a curse word when he spilled a cup of juice at his grandmother’s house.
Once upon a time, though, people used to be demure. That was a good thing. I don’t need to know that the nice lady who sits near me at Mass is at Peak Day + 3 and her husband is making her crazy, and I don’t need to know the number of bowel movements my kids’ swimming teacher’s cat has had this morning. If you are wondering whether any particular bit of information is “over-sharing,” it probably is. We could all use a dose of good old-fashioned mystery.
2. Check your settings.
This is pretty basic, but the number of people who have no idea what the privacy settings are on their Facebook pages astonishes me. Even if you think you know what your settings are, make it a habit to check them frequently. One thing Facebook excels at is changing the rules when no one’s looking. You might have missed the memo that now sets “Everyone Sees Everything, Even that Karaoke Moment from Your Nephew’s Graduation Party” as the default.
3. Remember: It’s forever.
Yes, you can delete status updates, photos, and even “friends” who turn out to be weirdos, but a well-timed screen shot is all it takes to be your undoing – with your boss, your kid’s school, or your mother-in-law. Even if you maintain the strictest of privacy settings, remember that people love to talk and share, right-click and save. Don’t ever share something on Facebook you wouldn’t want the entire world to know.
4. Open your mind.
I had no idea how many Hillary-Clinton-lovers I knew and loved before Facebook. When people freely share their hearts and minds, you sometimes won’t agree with what you read. One of the ugliest things you can be on Facebook, though, is angry. If someone shares an opinion that reveals his deep-seated ignorance, be a loving friend. Share a positive and encouraging perspective. Point out what he gets right and what you recognize as his admirable motivations, and then – if you must – gently nudge him toward the Truth you know he is longing to hear.
5. Leave sometimes.
Make sure you log off regularly to explore the great big world beyond Facebook. And I don’t mean Twitter. Some of the most interesting and creative people I know in real life are the ones with AOL email accounts they check once a month. Real life and real relationships should feed your virtual connections, not the other way around. Besides, just think of the number of Facebook-able photos you could take if you joined a hiking club. Or a soccer team. Or your parish Bible study.
6. Protect your marriage.
There’s a lot of trouble for marriage on Facebook. That guy you married might burp at the table, forget your birthday, and grow hair from his ears, but the boy you dated in high school is forever young, thoughtful, witty, and cute. That girl you married might have put on a few pounds and developed an unearthly attachment to ratty yoga pants, but your ex-girlfriend is forever adoring, flirtatious, stylish, and svelte.
Don’t even think about it.
Be proactive and protect your marriage. Give your spouse your login and password. Leave your Facebook page open on the family computer for anyone to see. Make it a rule to never share anything on Facebook – especially in private messages – that you wouldn’t want your spouse to read or hear about.
Social media is not the enemy, but neither is it our salvation. It is a tool – a tool that many people choose not to use, but one that some of us ignore at our peril. When both my mother and my daughter are engaged in social media, I wake up and pay attention. If God is calling me to use my gifts and to be an example of Catholic living, I can do that. At the grocery store, in my parish, on baseball field sidelines, and on Facebook.
Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will. Just tell me what my status update should be.
How about you? What rules would you add to this list?
(This is an old column of mine that originally appeared at Inside Catholic.)